Recycled Polyester Fabric: Have These 10 Brands Found a Solution to Plastic Pollution?
You’ve probably seen the words ‘recycled polyester’ popping up on clothing labels and heard the merits being spoken about by brands who are on a mission to be more eco-friendly. But what exactly is recycled polyester fabric, how is it made and is it really the eco-conscious solution to plastic pollution that it’s cracked up to be? Good Maker Tales takes a look.
Recycled Polyester: What’s All the Fuss About?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that recycled polyester fabric is a recent invention. It’s a hot topic and loads of brands are jumping on the recycled polyester bandwagon even though the material has been around for some time. Patagonia, was the first outdoor clothing brand to make fleeces out of recycled polyester back in 1993 and big brands like adidas have been using it for several years now. So what’s all the fuss about?
Much of the merit of recycled polyester fabric lies in its comparison with its non-recycled counterpart – polyester. So that’s where we need to start.
What is Polyester?
Let’s take a quick look at your straight-up, non-recycled polyester (commonly referred to as ‘virgin polyester’). It’s a synthetic, man-made fibre that was invented in the 1930s.
The most common form of polyester is polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – the most common type of plastic in the world – and PET is also the most widely used fibre in the clothing industry, accounting for around 52% of the total volume of fibres produced globally. That’s a huge amount of plastic and gives rise to a multitude of environmental concerns.
The Problem with Polyester
Polyester is made from petroleum-derived chemicals (contributing to all of the problems involved with fossil fuel extraction) and its creation is an energy and water-intensive process. It’s also a major contributor to the world’s plastic problem. Washing polyester leads to microfibres entering waterways, polluting our rivers and oceans. For more on this issue and ways to avoid microplastic pollution have a look here.
Given these issues, it’s clear that polyester is a fabric that we need to avoid. But is its recycled counterpart any better?
What is Recycled Polyester?
You might hazard a guess that recycled polyester fabric is made of polyester fabric that has somehow been recycled. That would be a logical assumption. However, for the most part, recycled polyester (or rPET for short) is made out of the PET found in plastic drinks bottles.
Why plastic bottles? Well, PET drinks bottles represent a pure, high-quality form of PET. Their material quality is high enough that they can tolerate the mechanical recycling process and they’re also transparent/dye-free.
How is Recycled Polyester Fabric Made?
To turn the bottles into rPET fabric, the plastic is sterilised, crushed, melted down and spun into yarn. This yarn is then used to produce a fabric and it takes roughly 9 large drinks bottles to make a large size T-shirt.
It all sounds pretty good, right? Especially given the plastic crisis. Turning plastic bottles into recycled polyester fabric is surely better than sending them to landfill, so rPET must be a good thing?
Well, yes, and no. Recycled polyester isn’t a silver bullet for the fashion industry. Let’s have a look at its pros and cons.
The Advantages of Recycled Polyester Fabric
Recycled polyester does have some clear advantages over non-recycled polyester:
- It reduces dependency on fossil fuels.
Because polyester accounts for over half the fabric in the textile and clothing industry, replacing it with a recycled alternative moves us away from bringing more new plastic into the world.
- It has a lower carbon footprint than virgin polyester.
Each kg of mechanically recycled polyester represents a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by more than 70% compared to virgin polyester (Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Material Sustainability Index – raw materials “Higg MSI”).
Each kg of mechanically recycled polyester represents a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by more than 70% compared to virgin polyester
- It minimises the amount of plastic that ends up in landfill and in our oceans.
By giving a second life to a material that’s not biodegradable and often ends up in landfill or the ocean, recycled polyester can help reduce the amount of plastic pollution.
So, by limiting the use of virgin materials, recycled polyester dramatically lowers its environmental impact versus traditional polyester. But, despite the clear pros, there are also some cons.
The Disadvantages of Recycled Polyester Fabric
- rPET fabric is not widely recycled.
The main problem is that there is no technology scaled up enough to recycle the PET fabric in clothes. PET bottles can be recycled into new bottles up to 10 times before they degrade but taking them out of this closed-loop and turning them into textiles currently puts them on a one-way street to landfill.
- The recycling process is still far from perfect.
Whilst it does have a lower carbon footprint than virgin polyester, the recycling process still has an impact on the environment. Because the polyester chips generated by mechanical recycling of PET bottles can sometimes be an off-white or creamy colour, chlorine-based beaches are often used to whiten the base. There is also an issue with inconsistencies in dye take-up, leading to re-dying and the associated high water, energy and chemical usage.
- Microplastics in the ocean.
Unfortunately using rPET does not stop plastic from entering the ocean. It still does, in the form of microplastics. According to one IUCN report, 35% of microplastic pollution comes from washing synthetic textiles. Whether clothes are made of virgin polyester or recycled polyester, they both shed plastic microfibres.
The Future of Recycled Polyester Fabric
It’s clear that the sustainability of recycled polyester isn’t a black and white issue and it’s certainly not an instant fix to the environmental problems created by the fashion industry. But it is still a better option than virgin polyester and there are also a few things that could make it more sustainable.
Mechanical Vs Chemical Recycling
We looked at one way that PET can be recycled – the mechanical process. It can also be recycled using a chemical process and it is this method that likely holds the key for textile-to-textile recycling and the creation of a closed-loop system.
With chemical recycling, a waste PET product is cleaned and broken down using a series of chemicals. It’s a more expensive process than mechanical recycling but it does overcome several of the limitations. It removes contamination and dyes and allows materials to be recycled on a loop.
If the technology for recycling PET in textiles can be scaled up, the future of recycled polyester fabric looks more promising.
Towards a Circular Fashion Economy
We also need industry-wide change. Currently, less than 1% of used clothing is recycled into new clothing every year. The infrastructure for collecting and sorting post-consumer textile waste needs to significantly improve in addition to the actual recycling processes.
Another issue is that many garments aren’t made from polyester alone but rather from a blend of materials which can make it more difficult for them to be recycled. There’s a lot of work to be done!
Adidas is one brand investing in R&D for 100% recyclable products, so this is definitely an area to keep an eye on.
Recycled Polyester – Not a Silver Bullet
But even if we overcome all the obstacles, fabric recycling still isn’t the solution to our culture of overconsumption. What we really need are well-made, long-lasting products that can be repaired and resold, putting off end-of-life management until all other options have been exhausted.
To quote folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger, “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”
Top Picks – 10 Brands Using Recycled Polyester Fabric
These 10 brands have ditched virgin polyester and are using polyester from recycled sources as part of their eco-friendly moves.
Based: Germany Ships to: Worldwide
Made in: Worldwide, mainly Asia
Sustainability creds: Recycled Materials, Vegan Options
Price range: £38-£160
Since 2015, household name Adidas has partnered with environmental organization, Parley for the Oceans to produce a range of products made from recycled ocean waste. The ‘Primeblue’ and ‘Primegreen’ labels mark products made with recycled materials and they’re also on a quest to develop a circular product with their FUTURECRAFT.LOOP project. The newly introduced ‘Made to be remade’ products are designed to be worn, returned, ground up and remade into something new.
Made: Info. not on website
Based in: Spain Ships to: Worldwide
Price range: £179-£515
Sustainability creds: B-corp, GOTS certified cotton, Global Recycling Scheme (GRS) certified recycled materials, vegan options, ethical manufacturing, sustainable packaging, gives back
Super cool Spanish brand Ecoalf is raising the bar for sustainable fashion. Their Ocean Yarn is spun from recycled plastic bottles collected from the bottom of the ocean through the Upcycling the Oceans project which unites more than 3,000 fishermen across Spain, Greece, and Italy, and has collected more than 700 tonnes of waste. Find Ocean yarn throughout their range from jackets and bags to footwear.
Based: UK Ships to: Worldwide
Made in: Asia, Europe, UK
Price range: £95-£250
Sustainability Creds: B-corp, GOTS certified cotton, GRS certified recycled materials, gives back, repairs and trade-in
Finisterre is a sustainable outdoor brand, built to inspire a love of the sea. All of their products containing polyester are made using recycled materials, from waterproof and insulated jackets to swimwear and accessories. Their ‘Lived and Loved’ service helps to extend the life of their products through repairs and trade-ins.
Based: Spain Ships to: UK, Europe, US
Made in: Asia
Price range: £23-£82
Sustainability creds: Vegan (PETA approved), GRS certified recycled materials, ethical manufacturing, plastic-free packaging, gives back
Established in 2012, Lefrik designs urban bags, backpacks and travel essentials all made of 100% recycled polyester fabric from PET bottle waste. We love that all orders are shipped in cardboard boxes and sealed with paper tape.
lucy & yak
Based: UK Ships to: Worldwide
Made in: India
Price range: £20-£65
Sustainability creds: Sustainable and recycled materials, GOTS certified cotton, ethical manufacturing, sustainable packaging, gives back
Best known for their signature dungarees, Lucy Yak is a fun and playful brand producing colourful and comfortable clothing, designed in Britain and ethically handmade in India. 98% of the fabrics they use are organic or recycled. Their vibrantly coloured polar fleeces are all made from recycled polyester.
Based: US Ships to: Worldwide
Made in: Worldwide
Price range: £28-£550
Sustainability creds: B-corp, sustainable and recycled materials, GOTS certified cotton, Regenerative Organic Certified™ pilot cotton, fairtrade, gives back, trade-in programme
Pioneering outdoor brand Patagonia began making recycled polyester from plastic drinks bottles back in 1993. Currently, 84% of their polyester fabrics are made with recycled polyester and they are actively working to convert the remaining amount to recycled material.
Based: UK Ships to: Worldwide
Made in: Worldwide
Price range: £12.95-£160
Sustainability creds: Sustainable and recycled materials, GOTS certified cotton, ethical manufacturing, gives back, trade-in programme
Timeless clothing inspired by Cornwall’s wild landscapes and maritime heritage. Seasalt offers tops made from 100% recycled polyester and includes the material across their range in dress linings, wool-blend coats and waterproof jackets. Currently piloting a clothing take-back scheme, ‘Seasalt Reloved’ in 10 of its UK shops.
Based: UK Ships to: Worldwide
Made in: China, India, Turkey
Price range: £9.95-£185
Sustainability creds: GOTS certified cotton, GRS certified recycled materials, fairtrade, ethical manufacturing, sustainable packaging, gives back, TRAID pre-loved programme
Specialising in easy-to-wear clothing made from natural materials, Thought incorporates recycled polyester across its entire range from scarfs and shopper bags to culottes and coats. 95% of their collection is PETA approved and 98% of their packaging is recyclable.
Based: France Ships to: Worldwide
Made in: Brazil
Price range: £80-£150
Sustainability creds: B-corp, GOTS certified cotton, sustainable and recycled materials, ethical manufacturing, vegan options
Founded in 2005, sustainable sneaker brand Veja offers ethical footwear designed in Paris with eco-friendly materials, including wild rubber from the Amazon, organic cotton and recycled polyester. Their B-Mesh fabric is made entirely out of rPET, the Hexamesh is composed of 70% organic cotton and 30% recycled plastic bottles and the J-Mesh is created using a blend of jute, recycled cotton and recycled PET.
Based: UK Ships to: Worldwide
Made in: Portugal and China
Price range: £26-£40
Sustainability creds: Recycled materials, WRAP certified ethical manufacturing, gives back
Eco-conscious runners can head over to Zouma and check out their range of sustainable singlets, socks, caps and tees made from recycled polyester fabric that is certified Okeo-Tex 100 and Global Recycling Standard (GRS).